Jamaican Contemporary composer Eleanor Alberga [born 1949] has written three string quartets. The Third Quartet is from 2001, and contains four movements.
The opening creeps up on you as a low hum allows a violin to create a warm melodic line, somewhat reminiscent of birds and the sea – just so idyllic. I think this is because, for me it evokes one of William Alwyn’s sea and bird themed quartets that I have discussed in the past. With the drone continuing, the violin becomes skittish and random pizzicato cello tones are heard. A further pizzicato section is followed by the cello returning to the bow and we have the beginnings of a serious mood. Cello tones reach out, before it returns to the ensemble and a section increasing in animation is powerful with alluring violin melodies. These are accompanied by further pizzicato cello, which never feels pizzicato to me – I prefer to think of pizzicato cello as sounding like jazz style walking bass. The violins have a wonderful feeling of angst about them until one violin sustains a tone for some time, and the cello responds with scant assertions before taking over. Harmonised cello and violin lines are slightly dissonant, leading to a thoughtful passage. Now the composer returns to the cut and thrust of duelling violins and occasional pizzicato interjections. A sparse, blatantly atonal passage is followed by some more tonal uncertainty and various changes in dynamics. The sound of a soft violin line accompanied by even softer pizzicato cello mutterings leads to a gentle end. This movement is quite long and there is much good music here – in fact, too much to cover. I have a feeling that I shall be listening to this piece again soon.
The second movement, marked scherzo (vigorous, light, or playful), again has an air of ambiguity, both tonal and rhythmic. This is a long way from the scherzo of a Haydn or Mozart, or even Beethoven. Swirling violin lines seem to dance around the scurrying cello feeling. Strong chords form a pattern which is replicated in gentler, pizzicato manner. A melodic motif is repeated and reharmonised to an abstract effect. Roughly hewn cello lines lead the violins into a marginally chaotic duet, with some double stops from the cello. The end is one violin musing to a pause, and a final note from the cello is heard.
An adagio movement follows and I am starting to get a handle on the composer’s style as two violins edge forward into a passage of consonant harmonies. Strains of dissonance drift in and out as the harmonies subside and the violins are left as they were for the opening. Three strong chords set up a spirited passage as the violins again duet expressively, similar to the previous movement. A resonant, weeping cello underpins the violin’s brooding utterances. Now the work moves up an emotional level with a great depth of feeling projected. The end is stunning as the violins form an unusual shrill, harmonised motif that is very fetching. The motif is repeated and a drone is heard before one violin plays just a sweeping phrase from the motif. This is a wonderful touch.
The final movement, marked allegro begins in a very formal manner with two violins, but they soon make their way into an abstruse feeling, which is soon supported by the cello. A section of the two violins has them playing the same rhythmic pattern. The formal has now definitely become the abstract until the violins return to the previous rhythmic pattern, this time with dark overtones. The composer chooses this moment for a brief, unexpected section of harmonious music. Brief it is as the ensemble attack the ending with dissonance and vigour. A harmonised flourish concludes.
This is a fascinating quartet – I just love its gentle abstraction and rhythmic diversity. The first two quartets are also on the review CD, the Second being in one movement. Both are fine, but being earlier they lack a bit of the structural cohesion that the Third Quartet has.
I have been waiting for this CD to appear for 6-8 weeks, as I had heard single movements from the first two quartets on Spotify that piqued my interest. The announced release date was today, June 14. I was rather pleased when I looked on Spotify this morning and found it – it wasn’t there yesterday. So this review is hot off the presses.
Titled Eleanor Alberga String Quartets Nos. 1-3 performed by the Ensemble Arcadiana on the Navona label is available on Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: Fascinating, spirited Contemporary work.